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Africanity, Islamicity and Performativity – Identity in the House of Ilorin

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Africanity, Islamicity and Performativity – Identity in the House of Ilorin. Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah. Bayreuth African Studies, Bayreuth, 2009. Pp. 215. ISBN. 978-3-939661-08-5 (pb). €19.95.

There are complex conceptual and ideological issues raised in this book that a short review such as this cannot, and will not, enter into.

For instance, Is it possible for a people to be Africans, Islamic and authentically indigenous at the same time? Would not such a people have lost their identity and be absorbed into the identity of Islamicity or Africanity? To AbdulRasheed Na’Allah, the answer to the first question is  a positive affirmation and the answer to the second question is a negative affirmation (to borrow a platform erected over three decades ago by Omafume Onoge. In this fresh and highly engaging book Na’Allah argues, with controversial persuasiveness, that it is such a double heritage that gives the Ilorin people their unique identity. And this identity is decipherable from their performances. This is because, to Na’Allah, and the Yoruba Africans, life is synonymous and intricately linked with performance Life and living are acted out dynamically. This is illustrated by the Yoruba saying – as translated in the book, “Life is a market” and everything in life is “done” i.e. performed.

Since the whole of life is a performance, a people’s culture can survive the onslaught of foreign interpolations and accretions. A people can absorb other peoples’ ways and still retain their own which can be decoded from their diverse performances at various times, in various places/spaces and for various reasons. This way, performance becomes a means of retrieving and perceiving the identity of a people; hence the ‘Identity in the House of Ilorin’ .

 Na’Allah establishes that the Ilorin people have a unique identity which not even the incursion of Islam nor that of cyber-technology can substantially alter, let alone obliterate. He argues that the effects of colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism and neo-imperialism, notwithstanding, the Ilorin people retain their original character and identity.  Explaining that the name Ilorin is derived from the Yoruba words ‘Ilo erin’ meaning ‘metal sharpener’, Na’Allah identifies the first settlers in Ilorin to be a Baruba family which settled around the rocky hill of Ilorin. Though the first settlers, they did not found a community until Sheik Alimi, the flag-bearer and commander of the Fulani Jihadist army, encamped around Ilorin in his march to spread Islam to the south-western part of Nigeria. Soon after the arrival of Sheik Alimi as a muslim cleric, Afonja, the War Commander (Aare Ona Kankanfo) of the Alafin of Oyo, also arrived in Ilorin, pursuing his conflict with the Alafin of Oyo and his chiefs who, envious of Afonja’s growing fame, set out to destroy him. He teamed up with Sheik Alimi’s soldiers to fight Oyo. Their victory over Oyo, which also led to the spread of Islam to the Oyo empire, led to a disagreement between the Afonja and the muslim Umma. In the ensuing melee, the Afonja lost his life and one of Sheik Alimi’s son became the first Emir (Amirul Islam) of Ilorin. He founded the Ilorin ruling dynasty and rewarded other founding families with chieftaincy titles that have endured in Ilorin till today.

The import of this history is that though Ilorin started as a melting pot of Barubas, Yorubas from Oyo ile, Hausas, Fulanis, etc, who had different traditional modes of worship before the coming of Sheik Alimi, and the founding of the Ilorin emirate, Ilorin became, and is, “the only community of its large size, that has no traditional masquerade”, denoting the ascendant position of Islam in the emirate. Islam thus  became the sole mode of worship and way of life for the Ilorin people.

In the vein of Ali Mazrui (1986), Na’Allah sees Ilorin people as having the double heritage of Islamicity and Yoruba performitivity. Hence, his sustained thesis is that only a person originating from a people like Ilorin can best interpret and fully apprehend their performance. In the tradition of African bards and/or griots as custodians of Ilorins peoples’ repository of communal memory and guardian of the Ilorin society’s sacred oral wor(l)d,   Na’Allah tells the story of the Ilorin people from their performances by establishing his lineage and pedigree.

 He insists that the participant-performer of a people’s origin is in the best position to interpret the peoples’ performance and establish their identity. He asserts that that foreign observers/scholars cannot fully grasp the nuances of the rituals involved in the performance, actions, and renditions of the artistes. He also decries the influence and effect of modern electronic recordings of a people’s way of life, either by satellites or video recordings, as “cyber-frozen” and calls for a regime of cyber-ethics in order to properly locate Africa in the multi-cultural world.

For these reasons, Africanity, Islamicity and Performativity – Identity in the House of Ilorin is a notable contribution to the study of African culture and the identity of the diverse peoples of the world. It successfully plays a role in the understanding of the Ilorin people as a people with a unique culture, founded on an amalgam of Yoruba tradition (without ancestor worship) and the international ethos of Islam.

Reviewed by: Olu Obafemi, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Nigeria.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 126-128]

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